DECEIVE PART ELEVEN

- -

"I didn't do it."

"Sark, this is a custom-made ring."

Sark walked over to her and took the ring from her hand. "When I commissioned the ring to be made, I took it to a specialist. There were certain things that needed to be included."

"Like what?" Sydney's voice was flat.

It was pretty clear she wasn't going to make this easy on him. Fine. He would not spare her.

"The ring has several capabilities. Your basic GPS locator is embedded in the band. Biometric scanners track your vitals. It will respond uniquely to the initial wearer and deactivate if anyone other than said owner wears it. In this case, that would be you," he paused to make sure the full impact of his statement had sunk in.

Sydney looked out the window instead.

Sark refrained from sighing and continued, "It also seems to have responded to you in times of distress." When she looked at him skeptically, he clarified, "Siberia."

He counted to five silently and prayed that something would, once again, interfere with any further explanation. He wasn't entirely sure she could handle much more. Still, if the look she gave him was anything to go by… "The sensors can also be modified for use in disabling bugs, cameras and other technological security."

"Like what you did in our room with the computer."

"Precisely. I didn't use it for the cameras because I wasn't certain it would respond to my touch."

She lifted her chin, reaching for the ring when he held it out to her and fitting it back on. "But it did."

"Yes."

"Why?"

For a long time he stared at her, as if the answer was somehow written on her face. "I'm not entirely certain," he finally said, very quietly.

And that was not a good thing to hear.

- -

"Come in." Simon looked up from the big screen TV to see Avery standing in the doorway, frowning darkly. "What is it?"

He handed him a single page of paper. "There's going to be hell to pay, Boss."

Simon's eyes widened as he read the information silently. When he finished, he stuffed the paper in his pocket and grinned cheekily at him. "Let me worry about that. See about securing transportation. If they're still here by the time we tell them… I want to move out. Julia seems to be feeling remarkably well for someone who's suffered a concussion."

Something about his tone of voice warned Avery not to push the subject. "Right. Anything else?"

On his way out the door, Simon all but growled, "Yeah. Don't let them get away."

- -

Still annoyed and somewhat disturbed by the whole notion of having a ring that was practically… alive, Sydney glared at Sark and relied on the only thing she could to get her out of this safely.

Resentment.

"Let's get one thing straight. I'm only wearing the ring because it's part of this whole charade."

"Heaven forbid you should wear it because you actually like it."

"Whether or not I liked it -- and I didn't, in case you were wondering --" Sark rolled his eyes in disbelief and moved to lean against the wall, arms crossed lazily, "has nothing to do with the fact that you got me this, this, possessed ring that somehow responds to the fact that I am more than just Sydney Bristow!"

"Oh, do keep your voice down, darling. You never know who might be listening." It was said playfully, but there was no mistaking the steel-lined warning underneath.

She clenched her jaw and looked away for a moment to gather her thoughts. "Fine. You can pretend this is not happening all you want, and maybe that's easy for you because no one has arrested you for some resemblance to a picture that's a couple hundred years old, or confused you with your mother half a dozen times or even bestowed upon you this great name -- a different one, one you've never asked for in your entire life -- but! -- and make sure you get this straight because I will not say it again Sark -- I never asked to be the Chosen One. I never asked to care about some dead prophet who has a bunch of people still following his work, and I never asked to be a pawn in this giant Rambaldi chess game. So before you tell me that this is nothing, before you say that this is something that can be ignored, or stepped around, or even dealt with -- remember who you're dealing with here. And know that there is no one more familiar than I am with the fact that things never go according to plan when it comes to this crazy old inventor."

After that outburst, it was all Sydney could do to reign in her emotions and get her heartbeat under control.

There was a knock on the door and Simon waltzed in before either of them could evade him. He eyed the two speculatively and cleared his throat. "Trouble in paradise?" Sark and Sydney both managed such an eerily similar look of disdain that he was forced continue. "Well, look. I hate to break it to you, but… It seems there's been some damage to that castle you call a home in France."

Sydney looked at Sark faster than you could say 'I told you so' and tried to act concerned. "What happened?"

Simon glanced at the still-quiet man in the corner and said, "My sources tell me it's rather extensive, actually. There's been reports of renegade bombers outside of Paris… They haven't wasted any time in letting the authorities know their demands and that they will not be stopped until they're satisfied. Apparently, the streets are black with soot and ash."

"Just get to the part about my house, Simon," Sark bit off impatiently, beginning to pace.

"Right. The latest assessment is quite bleak. Most of the structure is expected to be ruined and --"

Sydney let the rest of Simon's ongoing explanation filter out while glancing discreetly at Sark to see how he was taking the news.

A cloud of resolve seemed to pass over his face briefly before he lifted his eyes to meet hers. Sydney saw a trace of regret, and maybe even guilt wash through his gaze and almost felt sorry for ripping him a new one before Simon had walked in.

Something in the air changed and she shifted away to try and ease some of the discomfort she abruptly felt.

"Also --" A large, echoing boom shook the walls threateningly. "-- What the hell!" Simon halted mid-sentence, looking more than affronted at the newest distraction. He stuck his head out the door and yelled, "Keep it down out there!" Thunder shuddered through the walls and seemed to land just outside the observatory. "Bollocks," he grumbled, tossing the paper behind him distractedly. "Do what you want with that, mates. I've got to go see what in the effing name of everything worth having is going on in my house." The door slammed shut behind him solidly as Sark bent to retrieve the paper.

Sydney was at his side in a moment. "What does it say?"

"The house has been attacked by the renegade bombers, apparently. We would be foolish if we actually believe that anything remains. It's probably better to stay out of their path. We'll have to go and check it out once the smoke has cleared." He was so preoccupied with the thought of the castle being destroyed he didn't even notice the horrible pun he'd just made. Sydney decided to let it slide just this once.

"Sark," she put her hand on his arm. "It can't hurt, can it? It would give us an excuse to get out of here, at any rate."

"You're saying you want to go back there?"

"I left my things at your place. Of course I want to go get them."

"I honestly doubt there will be anything left. That is, even if you get past the tons of rubble and stone there will almost certainly be. It could take months to find anything there."

She bit her lip and shrugged one shoulder. "We have to try, don't we?"

Sark zeroed in on the emotion in her eyes and wondered why she even cared about the place. She'd only been there for a few days at the most, there was no way she'd already formed an attachment to the place. So why was she lobbying so hard for this? Already, a list of possible motives for wanting to leave was silently tallied up while he tucked his hand in his pocket.

Sydney shifted under his gaze, eyebrows lifted. "Well?"

The reverberation of shells exploding broke the moment awkwardly and she flinched at the sudden intrusion. "Can I just say how annoying that is?" The continuous noise set her pacing, just to have something to do.

Another loud crash prevented him from answering. Sydney looked up to see Sark heading straight for her. "What the --"

He picked her up and they rolled, skidding to a stop several feet away. A large chandelier crashed down roughly the location where they'd just been. He stood up and extended a hand to her, eyebrow raised in question.

"Right."

Sark tucked her close to his body and they headed for the door, falling back into their roles swiftly. They met Simon in the courtyard.

"What are you doing here? Can't you see we're under attack?"

The situation would have been laughable if it weren't so dire. The arm around her turned to steel and she felt a chill race down her body as Sark calmly replied, "For all we know, Simon, you ordered the hit."

Even with the chaos literally exploding around them, it was not hard to hear the deadly tone in Simon's voice. "What did you just say?"

"It would certainly explain the sudden attack on my home."

The darker man chuckled to himself. "You actually think I would destroy my own house to cover up a supposed hit on yours?"

She saved them from what was rapidly escalating into a full-blown, all out brawl -- and knowing these two the way she did, it would be messy -- by saying mildly, "Stranger things have happened."

His anger was drawn away from Sark and she was pinned under the fury behind his eyes. "You don't want to get into this, Julia. It's not your fight."

"Maybe it is." Her eyes flicked to the sky quickly as she took a step back, dragging Sark with her. "And maybe… it isn't."

A grenade landed at their feet as she met his eyes mischievously. "Guess this is where we split up, Si. Call you when we can."

They had just enough time to run before the explosion ripped the entire courtyard apart.

- -

Finding transportation and getting out of Italy was a lot easier than they had expected. Sydney called up a former contact and called in a favor that got them as far as France. Then they drove from the airport to the mountainous region outside of town. Sark wanted to know what to expect before getting in too deeply.

Sure enough, the surrounding area was gray with smoke. From what they could see -- which wasn't much at all -- the quiet little town looked almost dead in comparison with the vitality they had previously been witness to, and thick black clouds obscured most everything else from view.

Though he didn't express it aloud, Sydney knew that Sark wasn't sure if the staff at the estate had made it and that the logical side of him would not let that question go unanswered. At any rate, she had given him the extra push back in Campania, and they had to at least see if any part of the castle remained.

Sydney stepped down from the rock she'd been standing on and moved to get back in the car when Sark called after her. She turned with one hand on the door, a question in her eyes.

"If we take the car back, there will more than likely be an entourage of armed guards waiting to take us in. We left Simon in a bad position with the Covenant and they are not going to respond to that kindly."

"We can't just not go, Sark."

"I didn't mean to imply that our trip had been canceled, Sydney. Only that we are going to take another route getting there."

Something about the way the smoke reflected in his eyes scared her. "There's another way in?"

"How do you feel about tunnels, Sydney?"

- -

The first time they'd been to the manor, Sydney had been asleep. Sark had driven them and she gathered they had passed over the very cave they were traveling in now. By her estimation, they'd been inside the dirt tunnel for almost an hour. It seemed longer, but her watch was still partially functioning and she was using it for her sanity as much as chronological purposes.

"How much farther?"

"Quite a bit. I don't suppose you brought matches with you?"

"Matches? No. Why would I --" The torch she carried abruptly flickered out and a cold draft blew through the area quickly. "Don't tell me this place is haunted."

"I don't believe in ghosts," he smartly replied, coming closer and reaching her side in a few seconds. "But something about this place has always made me a bit uneasy."

"And you're just getting around to telling me this now?"

Even in the dark, she knew when he had turned to her in amusement. "Would you have willingly gone if I had mentioned it before?"

"…Maybe."

He smiled in the darkness. "Somehow, I doubt that. There's no fear of getting lost. These caves have been around for a long time. I practically grew up in them."

Something brushed past her legs and Sydney had to fight the urge to scream. She was an international spy. She could do this. The chill whipped past her once again and she shivered. Or not. "And if I admit to being afraid of the dark?"

"Perhaps a more appropriate time to reveal this phobia would have been before we'd entered."

Sydney stopped in her tracks and faced him. Or at least, faced what she thought was him, being that there wasn't really any source of light. "You didn't tell me we were going to be walking some underground tunnel to get back inside the gates."

"Clearly, an error on my part."

"And yet, you're not coming out and apologizing."

"What good would come of that? We're already down here, and more than halfway there, by my calculations."

Sydney swung her arms restlessly as she started walking again. "Which you still never really explained. What kind of childhood did you have, Sark, if you spent your time in caves and wandered the grounds for fun?"

Sark gripped her arm suddenly. "I didn't spend my childhood here." He loosened his grip infinitesimally. He kicked at the ground aimlessly, staring off into what Sydney presumed was the distance. "The caves were here long before we were."

She shuddered at the implications. "So you're saying they came with the house?"

Even in the dark, she could tell when he met her eyes. "Something along those lines."

There had to be a pound's worth of sand in her left shoe. Exasperated and tired of the darkness, Sydney stopped once again and leaned against the cave wall for support. "Would it kill you to answer a question straight out for once?"

"That depends on the question."

"Sark," she said, her voice low and angry. "Stop trying to avoid the subject."

He swallowed the dust that was sticking to his throat. "It would seem you're preventing that quite nicely."

"What are you talking about?"

"Your ring, Sydney."

She looked down at her hand to see the ring glowing faintly in the darkness. "You've got to be kidding me. Did you plan this?"

"I assure you, while antagonizing you is a favorite pastime of mine, I did not intend for this to happen."

"Does this mean if you so much as look at me cross-eyed, I can fry you into a thousand tiny little pieces?"

Despite himself, Sark took a step back. It wasn't the ring that worried him -- he was fairly sure it wouldn't harm him -- it was the strange glimmer in Sydney's eyes. "Now, darling," he slipped back into the persona of her fiancé seamlessly. "Do you really think that's wise? I'm your way out of here."

Sydney bit back a sigh and swatted at the long braids covering her back and shoulders. "Consider yourself spared for the time being. I make no promises about what happens when we finally get out of this place."

"As you like," Sark graciously offered.

She stood up straight and continued walking. Sark followed at a safe distance. "Just so you know, I'm only following you because I'd probably get stuck down a wrong path or something."

"Of course."

"I could probably make it out of here on my own if I wanted to."

"Probably."

Not missing a beat, she shoved him against the wall roughly. "And your childhood must have been really sad if you spent your whole life down here."

Sark twisted around and kicked her knees from behind. She landed awkwardly but sprung up, itching to fight.

"For the last time, Sydney. Leave my childhood out of this." Now his voice was threatening and furious.

"Sure thing." Sydney ground her foot into his instep. "Just keep your hands off me."

Ignoring the urge to beat her to a bloody pulp, Sark murmured, "You didn't seem to mind them last night."

She slanted him a look full of vengeful intentions. "Don't push me."

There was silence in the caves for a full minute while Sark weighed the pros and cons of having a brawl then and there. It would certainly take the edge off things.

"We'd bring this place down around our necks," Sydney said suddenly. "So don't even try it."

Suddenly too weary to be surprised that she'd know what he was thinking, Sark shook his head and put his hand on the wall. He felt the grooves and jagged edges for a moment. "Left up here. And then straight to the top."

Sydney let out a noise of disbelief. "We don't even know where we're going, so you just run your hands over the wall and become our roadmap? Let me see that," she pushed him out of the way none too gently and moved both her hands along the wall. Something smooth and cool to the touch ran underneath her left hand and before she could tell him about it, the cave flared to light with torches lining both sides of the wall.

Sydney closed her eyes in disbelief and leaned her head against the hard rock. She knew if she opened her eyes that she would see Sark's astonished face clearly and didn't want to talk about what had just happened.

As if understanding her need for silence, Sark came to where she was standing quietly.

Underneath her left hand was the symbol of Rambaldi.

And her ring was still glowing.

He gave her some time to take in what had happened before announcing that they should move on. Sydney looked at him once and followed the rest of the way in silence.

This time, the torches remained lit throughout their journey.

- -

They'd expected to find a structure that had been laid waste. A land ravaged by fire and wreckage. If they were truly fortunate, a small part of the castle that had survived.

They did not expect to find the grounds as perfectly manicured as the day they had left. The mansion stood before them proudly, dark and gleaming and remarkably untouched. It was too good to be true, and part of Sydney kept waiting for one of Simon's men to jump out from the trees and ambush them.

But the closer they got to the doors, the more she started to believe that the reports of the bombings weren't entirely true. Sark keyed the doors open quickly and they went inside, searching for any sign that something wasn't right.

The place was immaculate. If someone had been here, it didn't show. She followed him to the study and perched on the arm of the sofa while he ran through the appropriate protocols and securities.

"There hasn't been so much as a produce delivery since we left." Sark keyed in a few more commands, searching the video surveillance of the grounds. "It would seem that we weren't breached."

Sydney met his eyes. "The staff?"

"All present and accounted for. Philippe is even tending to the library."

"Something isn't right. Why would Simon have reports of this place being destroyed when there's not even a scratch on it?"

Sark rolled a pen between his fingers, considering his next words carefully. "I think it's safe to conclude that Simon was fed false information. In addition, the town has been bombed -- we're just not certain to what extent as of this time. The smoke reduced visibility quite a bit and it's reasonable to conclude that communication is probably limited."

"What are your staff trained to do in a situation like this?"

"Not respond."

How classically Sark.

"So what do we do now?"

He closed down the computer and stood up purposefully, tucking his hands into his pockets. "We wait."

- -

After two hours of waiting, they realized that the answers weren't simply going to come to them. But with the attacks so recent, they couldn't afford to go out and search. The first thing they'd agreed upon all day was the necessity to freshen up.

Sydney left Sark to go take a shower while he went to track down Philippe to talk options. It was strange how comforting it was to be inside her ivory room again. Now that it was only for one person, the bed looked absolutely humongous and the room seemed almost too clean, compared to the bright colors in Simon's villa and the occasional dust kicked up by the trade winds.

Still, it was nice to go into the bathroom and trust that she wasn't being monitored. She'd personally scoured the room for bugs before they'd left for Italy and then done a recheck as soon as they got back. And perhaps more importantly, knowing what her ring was capable of, it would be stupid for Sark to install cameras and bugs that she would destroy as soon as possible. Not to mention, a small part of her secretly hoped that he was beyond such things now.

The first thing she did upon entering was to run water for a bath. She added some foaming body wash with a generous hand and let the water run while the tub filled with bubbles. Her robe was still in the door hook where she'd left it and her hairbrush lay next to the hand towel on the sink.

She ran her fingers through her hair, finding the pieces that held her wig on and worked on untangling her real hair from the fake. Several minutes later, she was looking less like Julia Thorne of the wild hair and outrageous behavior and more like Sydney Bristow -- and it was an unbelievable relief. Her hair finally free of the constrictive extensions and at least half the makeup washed off her face, she stepped into the tub.

There was a book on the ledge next to her and a vase of roses directly in front, at the foot of the Jacuzzi. She submerged her entire body under the water, closed her eyes so tightly that she saw dark shadows playing behind her eyelids and held her breath until she couldn't stand it any longer.

When she came up for air, Sydney slicked her hair back and ran her fingers over the water gently. This was pure bliss. It was totally worth coming back if only to take a bubble bath. With that thought in mind, she turned the jets on, closed her eyes and decided to rest for just a few minutes.

- -

If Philippe looked surprised to see Sark, he did a good job of hiding it.

"You've arrived home early."

"There was some business that needed to be taken care of."

Thankfully, the older man was well acquainted with the Sark's line of work and nothing more needed to be said. "How is Miss Bristow?"

"A bit shaken by the tunnels, but she seems otherwise okay."

Philippe looked impressed. "You told her, then?"

"Not everything. But she's more aware of what that ring can do and perhaps that will keep her from getting too angry with anyone in the future."

The two men walked onto the patio and into the garden. "Were you followed?"

Sark aimed a dry look at him. "I am never followed."

"I could have sworn, there was that one time, in Denpasar…" Philippe trailed off wonderingly. "But I must be imagining things."

Sark cleared his throat and changed the subject. "What have you heard about these bombers? Do they have any records? Have we been in contact with them before?"

"As far as I'm aware, we have not yet run across these two."

Sark murmured noncommittally. "Find me as soon as you locate some intel."

"And where will you be, sir?"

"Around," he answered vaguely, leaving Philippe behind in the garden.

- -

The staff seemed to anticipate that they wouldn't need a five-course dinner or the usual attention and prepared a light snack in the study. That was where Sark found Sydney, munching contentedly on what appeared to be a sandwich of some kind, eyes closed in bliss.

"I take it you approve of your dinner this time?"

She opened her eyes reluctantly to see him seated across from her on the couch, with a mug in one hand and a sandwich of his own in the other. "BLT's are my favorite," she responded, completely ignoring his reference to the disaster that had occurred last time they were supposed to eat. While there were most definitely worse things than having a repeat performance of their encounter at the cliffs, Sydney couldn't seem to think of any. And that was certainly dangerous indeed.

They ate in an easy silence, now used to the company of the other. There was no strain or feelings of awkwardness between them, just an effortless relief and security that at the moment, things were silent on the home front and they could afford to stop and catch their breath.

"Not that I would ever be one to insult your sense of fashion, Sydney, but just exactly how old are those clothes you're wearing?"

Sydney fondly glanced down at her black sweats that seemed ageless and was thankful that she'd been able to locate some pieces of her past in storage vaults and at her father's house. "Ancient. I've had these since I began college."

Sark eyed the faded clothing with a very mild distaste and frowned. "Then they're well over 10 years old, are they not?"

"A lady never reveals her age," she primly replied, nibbling at the corners of her sandwich.

"Right. How thoughtless of me," he mused aloud, a smile playing at his lips. "In any case, I suppose they were worth coming back for?"

She set her plate down gently and regarded him for a moment, considering what he wasn't saying. "It was worth it," she finally affirmed, nodding. "I'm glad we came back."

"Good. So am I." He finished his meal and stood up to stretch. "Being that we haven't heard anything regarding our current situation just yet, I'm going to suggest that we get some rest. Tomorrow will be our day to figure things out, and I'm afraid we're going to have to jump directly into the Covenant's hands before they send out a search party."

"Okay. I'm probably going to finish reading this chapter first," Sydney held up the book she'd swiped from the library. "See you in the morning," she said to his departing form.

Sark paused in the doorway and turned back to Sydney with a strange look on his face.

"What?"

He pressed his lips together. "When I was speaking with Philippe earlier, he said there were two bombers."

Sydney frowned. "How would he know that?"

"He wouldn't. Unless he's --" Sark cut off suddenly, and fell to the floor with a thud. A red dart stuck out of his neck.

Sydney tensed in her seat, getting ready to strike out at their attacker.

The person hefted the tranq gun and stepped into the room.

"Dad?"

- -